A loss in blue-leaning Virginia and a too-close-for-comfort race in New Jersey sent divided Democrats in Washington scrambling for answers Wednesday, and calling for new strategies to unstick a stalled legislative agenda before they sustain more political damage.
Republican Glenn Youngkin edged Democratic former Gov. Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia governor's race, erasing President Joe Biden's 10 percentage point margin of victory just a year ago. In New Jersey, heavily favored Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy was neck-and-neck with GOP political newcomer Jack Ciattarelli in a state Biden had carried by 16 percentage points.
The results were ominous for Democrats far beyond those states. The party's eroding support does not bode well as it clings to narrow House and Senate majorities ahead of midterm elections next year. Elections without presidential races historically mean many lost seats, especially in the House, for the party holding the White House.
Congressional leaders on Wednesday tried bolstering the appeal of Biden's stalled domestic legislation and used the election results to call for action. The two measures — a $1 trillion infrastructure bill and a 10-year, $1.75 trillion package of social and environment initiatives financed largely with taxes on the wealthy and corporations — have been slowed for months by infighting between progressives and moderates.
"I would hope this clarifies everybody's thinking about how important it is to get these bills behind us," said Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., who represents some of Washington's prosperous suburbs. "The time for kvetching is over."
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., lamented that some fellow Democrats "wanted to be purist about whatever their own particular goals were, left, right and center." He added, "A lot of politics is about timing. And there was a time to do this that would have helped in both of these states."
Three-quarters of voters said drawn-out negotiations in Washington over Biden's governing agenda were an important factor in their vote. Those voters were more likely to back Youngkin, according to preliminary results from AP VoteCast, a survey of Virginia voters.
Rather than swift passage of the compromises on the table, progressives used the moment to urge the party to restore the liberal priorities dropped during talks. They blamed the election losses on Democrats' failure to make the bills bold enough. Biden and congressional leaders have cut in half what was a $3.5 trillion package of social and environment initiatives, curtailing or eliminating provisions embraced by progressives but opposed by spending-shy moderates.
"The lesson going into 2022 is that Democrats need to use power to get big things done for working people and then run on those accomplishments. Period," the Progressive Change Campaign Committee said in a statement.
Progressive Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., said Democrats' continued delays on their economic bills hurt but cited other factors, too.
"I think there is a general sense of discontent, a tough year with the Delta variant, the challenges in the supply chain, the sense that Washington has been gridlocked. We can't control the external circumstances, but we can control getting things done," Khanna said.
After arriving back in the U.S. early Wednesday morning from global summits in Europe, Biden spoke on COVID vaccinations for kids but otherwise had no public schedule as he and his advisers took stock of what lessons could be gleaned from the Virginia and New Jersey voting.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., said they were preparing to add paid family leave provisions to the domestic policy bill. The proposal has been a key priority for progressives but had been lopped out after moderate Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., complained about its costs.
The National Republican Congressional Committee, the House GOP's campaign arm, signaled its optimism Wednesday by adding 13 Democratic-held House seats to the 57 it was already targeting for 2022.
"In a cycle like this, no Democrat is safe," said NRCC Chairman Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn.
Even so, Democrats said much could change in 12 months including an easing of inflation and the COVID-19 pandemic and enactment of their party's economic agenda.
"It could be a very different political environment by next spring," Connolly said.